Compassionate Outreach: How Straw For Dogs Increases Quality of Life in Alaskan Communities

Straw For Dogs (S4D) is a remarkable volunteer group in Alaska working to improve the lives of dogs and people through compassionate, non-judgmental outreach, education, and rescue efforts. In addition to spay/neuter, vaccinations, and general vet care, S4D also provides pet food, pet supplies, training assistance, and custom insulated, elevated dog houses, filled with straw, to provide a warm shelter for dogs living outdoors.

Straw For Dogs was the recipient of a 2015 Your Program Your Ideas grant from Animal Farm Foundation for their Community Outreach/Owner Support work. We recently spoke with Metis Riley, co-founder and volunteer, about S4D’s progressive, effective approach to pet owner support services.

AFF: The families and pets you work with are living in challenging conditions. Can you share S4D’s philosophy about the pet owner support work that you do?

straw for dogs

Midnight and her person Gustie. Midnight was spayed and vaccinated through S4D in partnership with Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Outreach, Inc (photo credit ANRVO).

S4D: Straw For Dogs is an outreach program that offers free and pay-as-you can supplies and resources for pets outdoors. S4D developed as a way to help animals, but through our efforts we have learned that we can only do that by understanding and working with their caretakers.

While we might hope that all dogs and cats could live indoors, our mission is to help animals who are outdoors be more comfortable.

We offer doghouses, straw, toys, treats, collars, spay/neuter, pet food bank, and other supplies, as well as continued support for families with pets outdoors. We provide training tips, crates, and toys to help pets transition to being indoors.

By demonstrating quality caretaking, we strive to create long lasting changes for the entire family. Our volunteers endeavor to be compassionate, patient, and gentle with the humans, as well as the dogs, and as an organization, we urge our volunteers to extend that kindness to themselves as well.

What are some of the specific challenges you face in terms of assisting pet owners in rural areas of Alaska?

Rural Alaska is mostly reached by boat or plane. Both are extremely expensive ways to ship freight. Basics supplies in most places, such as collars, doghouses, and bags of dog food might simply be unavailable in these locations. And what is available is very expensive. For example, in Kotzebue, a village in rural Alaska, a gallon of milk is almost $10.00!

Grease has been an outreach client since 2014, after retiring from a sled dog team. He finished the Iditarod five times! Grease has upgraded to a heavy duty wooden house and lightweight cable run provided by Straw For Dogs. Volunteers returned to maintain and fix the run after wear and tear, thanks to a grant from Animal Farm Foundation.

Grease, a retired sled dog, had his housing upgraded to a heavy duty wooden house with straw and a lightweight cable run. Volunteers help maintain and fix the run after wear and tear.

With the grant received from Animal Farm Foundation, Straw For Dogs sent 30 bales of straw to rural Alaska. Without road access, all supplies are flown in these areas, which is very costly. Everts Air Cargo donated shipping as space was available from Anchorage to Canine Comfort LLC in Aniak and Friends of Kotzebue K9 in Kotzebue. Ravn Alaska and Arctic Backcountry Flying Service LLC also donated air freight to get supplies to smaller, more remote villages.

By working with nonprofits and businesses to distribute supplies on a local level, Straw For Dogs can help reach dogs in the far areas of Alaska, where we may not have volunteers, but the need is great. The living conditions for humans and dogs alike are very tough in Bush communities.

Families in these areas might be struggling to make ends meet, which can make it even more difficult to provide for their pets. Our standard procedures include building a relationship with the caretaker to follow up regularly and it can be challenging to find advocates to do that in rural areas where we don’t have volunteers.

In your grant report you shared so many wonderful stories of individual dogs that S4D has helped. Is there a particular dog or family that taught you something new or important about doing outreach work?

Dozer is a longtime client (since 2013) who we have helped move numerous times with his wheelchair-bound caretaker. Each time they move to a new home, Straw For Dogs has helped get Dozer set up with a fence, doghouse, and supplies. Recently we installed a new gate that is easier for his caretaker to operate from her wheelchair.

Straw for Dogs Dozer

Dozer loves his mom, Shelia, who was willing to move to a new home in order to keep him with her.

Committing to help over an extended period of time has been a lesson in patience and practicing non-judgment. Because of our long term relationship we have weathered some ups and downs, but we trust that our efforts have improved Dozers’ overall quality of life.

Johnson Family Straw For Dogs

The Johnson family installed new fencing and set up a dog house for Dozer.

This is truly a team effort. Tom and ReAnn Johnson are some of our most dedicated outreach volunteers and they included their visiting relatives in helping to move Dozer’s fence from his old home to his new place. This photo album is from that day (the photos are even more special now, because Tom’s father has since passed).

If you could pass along one piece of advice to other animal welfare groups about doing effective pet owner support work in under-resourced communities, what would that be?

Focus your efforts and keep steering towards your mission. It is easy to get pulled in many directions and want to help in many ways, as the need is great in all fields of nonprofit work. Consider your strengths and weaknesses and choose to maybe do less, but do it better. By better I mean responsibly, sustainably, and that animals and people are affected by your efforts in positive ways.

Thank you for your incredible work, progressive approach, and generosity of spirit S4D! To learn more about Straw For Dogs, please visit their website. 

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Picture Me Perfect: How Washington County Humane Society is Saving Lives Through Marketing

When Debbie Block, the Community Relations/Grant Director of The Washington County Humane Society in Slinger, WI, wrote us to report how WCHS had used the Adoption Marketing grant funds we awarded them last year, this caught our eye right away:

“We are very proud of our numbers – we have been helping more dogs in the state of Wisconsin than ever before. We are one of a handful of shelters in the state to pull animals from Milwaukee Animal Control. Our euthanasia rates are on the decline and our length of stay is decreasing as well. We are very proud of our numbers and continue to work harder to decrease the length of stay and increase our educational outreach.

This grant has helped us to think outside of the box when it comes to marketing our dogs. We are able to soften their pictures – make them whimsical and really show a goofy, loving, and rip at your heart strings image! We are still learning about all of our equipment … every day we get a little bolder and braver with our outreach.

In the meantime we are having a wonderful time watching our stats decline due to our Marketing Efforts and our Kennel Enrichment Program. Our euthanasia rate over the past three years is steadily on the decline. In 2013 we were at 9.7, 2014 we were at 8.78, and at 2015 we were at 5.75 – currently we are at 4%…Comparing this March to March of 2015, our length of stay is declining…. and we have been helping other shelters that are overflowing with dogs.”

Debbie also shared that along with the equipment they purchased with the initial $1,000 AFF grant (which included a green screen kit with video lightening kit, props, filters, SD cards, extra bulbs, and batteries, a tent, backdrop curtains and fall screen, flyers and cardboard cutouts of dogs to place in furniture stores), they were also able to secure further support from local businesses. Coldwell Banker donated $1,000 in matching funds for a new camera, lens, and camcorder and the Eagle Scouts have offered to build a photo booth!

We asked Debbie to share more about how WCHS has used their Adoption Marketing grant award to create their Picture Me Perfect project and make big changes for the people and pets in their community.

AFF: Has the new approach to photography and marketing allowed you to reach a wider audience? 

Debbie: Our grant has been so much fun! Our photos are getting shared all the time.

For example: One dog, Dreamboat, continually was overlooked. I saw a photo of Matthew McConaughey driving his Lincoln. It got the wheels turning. Then I saw a photo of Ellen DeGeneres of her in the back of the car. That was when it hit me – let’s put Dreamboat in the front seat! We used the new green screen to make it happen.


I shared the photo and everyone was going crazy! I posted it to Ellen DeGeneres’ Facebook page and people were loving it. We got messages from out of state telling us: awesome job, keep up the good work, and way to think outside of the box.

We’re really just beginning. People in Wisconsin love their Packers, so we put a photo of one of our dogs into the huddle with the Packers. We try to show rabbits in home situations, blooper photos of dogs, and serious heart tugging photos too.

We love that the grant helped spark some new partnerships with other groups, like Coldwell Bankers and the Eagle Scouts, who also recognize the importance of great marketing! How did that come about? Do you have any tips for other shelters looking for local partners on similar projects?

I cannot stress enough that reaching out to your community is vital. Create partnerships and your shelter will go far.

I approached Coldwell Banker about their recent partnership with other shelters and asked them to consider doing something with us. Each Coldwell Banker is a franchise – we happen to be blessed with a volunteer who is a realtor for Coldwell Banker Homesale Realty and has a big heart with helping animals. He has funded many of our projects to help us with marketing and thinking outside of the box.

green screen


If I can give one piece of advice it would be: Make yourself visible, ask for help, talk about how you help the community, and don’t forget to mention to the business that you will help market their business or service as well. It’s all about community!

Along the way you will get a lot of “nos”, but don’t ever stop trying. Come back to that organization next year. Diligence pays off. Remind them of the services your organization provides and how you assist them.

Offer to give a tour or do an educational venue at their organization. Share your vision, as well as the vision of the organization. When you make yourself vulnerable, it’s easy for a company or organization to see you are sincere.

Your fun photographs help adopters to see the cats, dogs, and small animals as individuals. How does this approach help dogs like Moses, who might get passed over in the kennels, to go home faster and with the right families?


From the Grant Report: Moses Makes A Different 1st Impression


Having fun photos or videos helps potential adopters see that animal outside of their cage. Whenever we have a dog that looks or behaves a little overwhelmingly in their kennel, it is critical to have volunteers and staff tell people about that animal and show them outside of their cage. Talk to adopters and the public about what a great animal he/she is. Find out what exactly they are looking for and help them find the perfect fit.

It’s critical to show and share those videos. We do different social media posts every day of the week. Keep things interesting. We post information on dogs that people pass by and suggest that people stop by and treat that dog.


Often times I’ll offer tours with some education; it’s a great time to talk about behaviors they might be seeing and tell people how we are working through the high energy, various behavior issues, and the harder to place animals.

We have fantastic volunteers and staff who work hard every day to make a difference in the lives of the animals that are at our shelter. We are truly blessed. And with their help we will never stop thinking outside of the box, learning, and striving for improvements.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with other shelters and rescues about what you’ve learned through “Picture Me Perfect”?

Just try new techniques – test your audience. Monitor your numbers. Find out when your demographic/followers are watching on social media and follow the stats on your website. These are important numbers and you will then know when to reach out at the most opportune time.


Don’t be afraid to experiment. Some people might not like what you are doing, but then again remember you are doing it for the animals. If people are talking good, bad, or indifferent it’s good! They are watching what you are doing and that’s ok. Your work is getting noticed. Keep doing it.

One thing I can’t stress enough is don’t be afraid to ask for in-kind donations: props, money to create flyers, video cameras, SD Cards, backup batteries, etc.

Show people you are committed and community will embrace you!

Thank you Debbie and WCHS – keep up the great work!


If your organization would like to apply for an Adoption Marketing grant, please see our website. The deadline to apply for 2016 is June 1st!


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Perfect Fit: Why “Pit Bull” Dogs Are Flying Out Our Doors

Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

A young newlywed recently asked us for help. She wanted to surprise her husband with a new dog for his birthday. Excited to assist, we created a gift that included a dog application with the words “APPROVED” on it and some dog toys. After she surprised him with the gift, they would come in to the shelter together to choose their first dog and new family member.

A few weeks later I ran into her with her husband. They were at the shelter meeting a dog that they had both fallen in love with online: Shaggy.

Sadly for them, they weren’t the only ones who fell in love with Shaggy! They were 4th in line to adopt him. The woman told me she cried when she found out that they might be too late to adopt Shaggy.

He was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality…but because three other families thought the same thing too, they might not be the ones to take Shaggy home.

She told me they had arrived at the shelter 30 minutes before we opened to make sure they’d be first in line to adopt Shaggy, not realizing that three other families had already applied.

What kind of dog inspires waiting in line? Or crying at the thought of missing out on adopting him?

What kind of dog do you imagine Shaggy might be?

Here are some hints:

He’s not a puppy.

He’s not a small dog.

He’s not a designer mutt.

He’s not famous or from a high profile rescue case and has never been on the news.

Shaggy is an adult “pit bull” dog.

Shaggy is a dog that has been labeled a “pit bull” in an area where some of the communities we serve still have Breed Specific Legislation which means many of our adopters, including this couple, unfortunately need to navigate extra barriers to legally bring dogs like Shaggy home.

And yet, he flew out our doors.


The narrative we so often hear in our industry is that “no one wants to adopt pit bulls,” but that’s no longer our experience at ARL.

Shaggy’s story illustrates just how popular “pit bull” dogs actually are (5th most popular in Iowa and in the top 10 in 48 states). Most importantly, it reminds us how dogs who are labeled “pit bulls” are just DOGS.

People don’t adopt labels. They adopt the dogs that are the right fit for them.

Shaggy was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality. For multiple families, he was the perfect dog, just the right fit for their lifestyle.

That’s what matters most to this new family, to the other 3 families who applied to adopt him, and to the thousands of families who adopt dogs from us each year.

Everyone has their own idea of what “perfect” is in terms of size, look, and personality – and every dog is different – that’s what makes dogs so cool! That’s also what makes it so fun to help families find their perfect dog.

But if we want to help families and make great matches, then we also need to check our assumptions about what kind of dogs we perceive that the public does or does not want to adopt.

In 2010 we had 7 “pit bull” adoptions all year.

In 2016 we have multiple applications and people in tears when they miss out on a adopting dogs that are labeled “pit bulls.”

“Pit bull” dogs are flying out our front doors.

The dogs didn’t change.

We changed.

We changed as an organization in terms of how we talk about dogs: instead of talking about their breed label or where they came from, we talk about who they are as an individual dog and what kind of family lifestyle they would prefer.

Shaggy is not an exception. This happens all the time.

A few days ago I took a dog on TV for our weekly feature. Twilight is a year old, walked like a dream on a leash, was shy at first but warmed up quickly, and was very curious about the action in the studio.

Because she needed a family who could give her patience and a calm environment to let her settle into her new life, we had restricted her adoption to families with either teenage kids or no kids. This makes her a little tougher to place since we were eliminating many families right off the bat, but it was the home we identified that Twilight would need to thrive.

She laid nicely next to me as I talked with the host about her ideal family and the other upcoming events we had going on at the shelter. By the time we got back to the shelter (after stopping at a drive thru for a cheeseburger for her), she already had two pending adoption applications.

As you have probably guessed, Twilight was labeled as a “pit bull.” And despite her limited adoption audience (no small kids), Twilight was popular! She had applications on her when other dogs who were younger, smaller, and without children restrictions, didn’t.

Over and over, we experience this at ARL.

The families who adopt are as diverse as the dogs in our shelter. The perfect dog for me (big, a little ornery, good with cats) and my child-free home is different from the next person, and the person after that.

And guess who decided that Twilight was the perfect fit for their family? The newlyweds!


After missing out on Shaggy, they were introduced to Twilight and fell in love. They were, once again, one of many families that were in line to adopt an adult “pit bull” dog.

When we asked them what they thought about that, they replied, “We just want a nice dog who fits our lifestyle.”

Simply put, that’s what it’s all about.

When we focus on who the dog is, what they need, and what the family wants, we can talk about things that matter: helping families find the perfect dog for them and setting them up for a lifetime of happiness together.


Stephanie Filer is the Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, overseeing the fundraising and marketing team for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa – the state’s largest animal shelter. In addition to her love for animals, she shares a passion for helping people through volunteering for the local homeless youth shelter and serving as a mentor to kids in need.

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More Animal Shelters Remove Breed Labels: Is Software Catching Up?

Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center in Austin, TX.

In 2008, Dr. Amy Marder wrote, “Instead of depending on inaccurate breed labels, we want people to choose their future companions based on accurate personality profiles.” To this end, she introduced the idea of using “American Shelter Dog” in place of a breed label because, as she said, “The problem is that breed identity elicits behavioral expectations on the part of the new owner, even though researchers have found enormous behavioral variability within all breeds.”

Eight years later, the word is finally getting out: The labels we assign to shelter dogs are both highly inaccurate and can result in dogs waiting longer to find a home. A recent study, titled, “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs” revealed that length of stay and outcomes for all dogs was negatively impacted by labels on kennel cards and suggests that breed labeling influences potential adopters’ perceptions and decision-making.

The research confirmed two important points:

  1. In some areas, the public may have negative perceptions of “pit bull” dogs that impact adoption rates. In our experience, this is different in each community. In some areas, people are lining up to adopt “pit bull” dogs.
  1. Breed labels can have negative implications on the adoption process for all dogs.

More importantly, thanks to another body of research, it is also proven beyond a doubt that breed labeling, based on visual identification, is not accurate.

This solid body of research can help shelters make two important changes to increase both the quantity and the quality of adoptions for all dogs:

Improve marketing for all pets, including “pit bull” dogs: marketing efforts must be improved in order to help the public get to know the individual dogs in the shelter’s care, which includes shining a light on “pit bull” dogs. By helping the public to see the millions of happy “pit bull” dog families we can help combat lingering stereotypes and misinformation. Looking for ways to market all dogs more effectively? See my recent articles: here and here.

Remove breed labels for all dogs: by doing away with inaccurate guesses, we remove information that is unreliable, yet perceived by the public as fact. Instead, we can work to get to know our adopters and determine what kind of personality traits they’d like in a dog, then help them find the individual dog that best meets their needs. With nearly 75% of all dogs in shelters being mixed breed, we can’t rely on breed standards based on our inaccurate breed guesses, to assess which dogs are the right matches. Getting to know both the people and the dogs will lead to better adoptions for every family.

mixed breed puppies

We look forward to the day when shelter software allows us to label dogs like these puppies as “mixed breed”, rather than labeling them with a guess.

Why are breed labels so misleading? For both the public and the shelter workers, breed labels come with a set of expectations, generalizations and stereotypes. These assumptions typically set unreasonable expectations for shelter dogs and can have detrimental effects on adoptions. It is not unusual for dogs of all kinds to be returned when they don’t meet the adopter’s assumptions about how that dog should behave, based solely on the breed label that was assigned at intake. By removing the breed, we open the door to more accurate conversations.

To further increase accuracy in our communications, we can remove breed labels from our “lost” pet listings, too. When shelters assign a breed label to stray dogs this can delay or thwart the dog being reclaimed by their owners who may have labeled their dog a different breed mix.  The more accurate approach is to focus on the physical description of the dog: color, weight, any identifying characteristics, where the dog was found, etc.

However, the remaining hurdle for most shelters is that most shelter software systems still require us to select a predominate breed, even when we don’t know. And when we don’t know, too often we go with catch-all phrases like ‘pit bull mix’ or ‘lab mix.’ Our software systems do not allow us to select ‘unknown’ or even ‘mixed breed’ despite the plethora of research on the problems with guessing and labeling. This means shelters are stuck with using these labels on kennel cards, adoption contracts, and other official paperwork.

kennel cards

The good news is that as we now understand how inaccurate and possibly damaging those labels are, more and more shelters are pushing back on the limitations imposed by shelter software.

Despite the fact that breed labels couldn’t be removed entirely, several shelters across the United States, including Orange County Animal Services and my previous shelter in Fairfax County, Virginia, stopped using labels on our kennel cards. At the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, we saw an immediate increase in adoptions as our customers got to know dogs without being influenced by a label guess.

To further help our community understand this change, we quit using breed labels in our social media posts and put the emphasis of telling the unique stories of each of our dogs. At my current shelter, Austin Animal Center in Austin, Texas, we’ve seen an increase in adoptions since we dropped the labels off our kennel cards in late 2015.

We also changed how we speak about our dogs, and adopters are embracing us as the experts on this topic. When someone asks us, “What breed is that dog?” instead of making a guess and probably being wrong, we say, “The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed breed heritage and when we guess a breed, we’re often wrong.” People really do understand this and they appreciate our honesty.

If there are concerns about housing restrictions or other breed discriminatory policies, we always address those potential issues openly with adopters. This approach is about being accurate and honest about what we know and do not know. If there are concerns that a dog may be perceived as a restricted breed by another member of the community, such as animal control or landlord, we address this. Removing breed guesses doesn’t restrict information, it opens the doorway to more accurate, in-depth conversations.

One of many mixed breed dogs of unknown origin that come through our shelter doors.

One of many wonderful mixed breed dogs, of unknown origin, who arrived at our shelter.

To learn why we changed how we talked about breed, check out this earlier post on the subject. Published last summer, it will tell you how you can make immediate changes in your shelter to increase adoptions, shorten length of stay and help every dog in your care be seen for who she is, not her label.

Thankfully, some shelter software companies are hearing the message that shelters want to have the discretion to choose a ‘mixed breed’ or ‘unknown’ label for dogs of unknown heritage (the vast majority of dogs in shelters today). They’re asking questions and are looking for ways to overcome the obstacles that have prevented this change in the past. It seems likely shelters will be able to choose not to use breed labels in the relatively near future.

The bottom line is we have nothing to gain by perpetuating subjective labels as accurate or even helpful information. In recent weeks, shelters such as the Arizona Animal Welfare League and Dallas Animal Services have announced they would remove all breed labels from their kennel cards. They join the growing numbers of shelters nationwide who are no longer perpetuating guesses at breed or breed mix as reliable information.

There are still many challenges and obstacles to overcome for shelters and dog owners in our communities, but soon I predict we will have won another victory for all dogs when we are no longer required to label shelter dogs with inaccurate breed labels.

Want to hear more about this? Join me and Caitlin Quinn (Director of Operations at HeARTs Speak, Inc.), speaking on behalf of Animal Farm Foundation, at the Humane Society of the United States Animal Care Expo this May. We’ll be telling you how to save more lives by changing how you think and talk about breeds and sharing tips for how you can remove breed from the equation now. Removing breed labels is easier than you think and soon we hope it will be even easier!

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Marketing is Not Adoption Counseling: Keep ‘Em Separate, Save More Lives

Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center in Austin, TX.

Shy dog Derek had been at Austin Animal Center, waiting for a family for several months, but was timid and scared in his kennel and didn’t seek out attention. There were no sparks with potential adopters.

As I sometimes do with dogs who need some extra attention, I brought him into my office and got to know him over the course of a few days. I saw him around other dogs, kids, and cats. I learned that he was very well behaved, but seemed unsure of the world, and sometimes became nervous. I observed his back legs seemed to bow out and he walked a little funny.

derek 1

Derek was super shy in his kennel and was one of those dogs we sometimes call “shut down.”

With this new information, it was time to do some marketing. I wrote a silly little description of my experience with Derek and stuck it on his kennel.

derek staff pick

I brought him in my office and got to know him over a couple of days. I made a silly flyer and put it on his kennel.

After just two days with the new sign, a woman wanted to meet him in the play yard. Once they got to meet, she saw there was a spark between them and said, “I want to take him home.”

At that point, after that initial magic connection had been made, we began the adoption counseling.

I described everything I had observed, including that he seemed to like the children he met, but also seemed unsure of them. I also told her that he needed his back legs checked out and that he might have some issues because of his conformation. I was honest and disclosed everything we had assessed and observed about Derek.

The adopter asked a lot of good questions. She considered if he was the right fit for her.

At the end of the counseling process, she was still convinced Derek was for her. She adopted him that day and when we followed up, she told us she is ‘completely in love’ and he’s the perfect dog for her.

Figure 3 This family saw the flyer, met Derek, bonded with him, went through the counseling process and adopted him. Derek was so proud!

This family saw the flyer, met Derek, bonded with him, went through the counseling process and adopted him. Derek was so proud!

Dogs like Derek are typically marketed to the public with information like:

“Shy, needs home with adults only” or “Probably a backyard dog and not well-socialized.”

These statements, used during the marketing phase, act as STOP signs which prevent potential adopters from asking to meet dogs (even ones that would be a great fit for them!). To help send more pets home, shelters need to separate the marketing from the adoption counseling.


Too often we mistake social media marketing as the place for adoption counseling.  

Can you spot the ‘stop signs’ in these posts?

 “Elsa is a gorgeous, two-year-old pit bull who loves people and loves to snuggle and go on walks. She must be the only dog in the house. She’d do best in house with no kids. Elsa has been waiting more than two years to find a new family to love her. Could she be the one for you?”

“Sam is fun-loving dog with tons of energy who is looking for an active home. He is really good with most people, but he prefers women over men. He is reactive and has mild separation anxiety, but with the right person, he’s going to make an awesome pet!”

I know what you’re thinking: “We have a responsibility to our adopters/fosters/rescuers/public to tell them everything we know about that animal! Are you saying we should intentionally hide the truth?”

No.  As animal welfare professionals and volunteers, we owe it to our community and our adopters to disclose everything we know about one of our animals.

However, we share all of that information during the adoption counseling portion of the process…not in the marketing.

Marketing is meant to grab attention and open a door. Adoption counseling is for full disclosure.

Marketing is what GETS people to the adoption counseling process by piquing their interest in meeting the animals. But you can’t do the complicated business of adoption counseling if NO ONE is there for you to talk to. Marketing: it’s what makes the full conversation happen!

Here are some simple tips for keeping your marketing separate from your adopting counseling process. If you do this, you’ll increase your adoptions, make better matches, and get more pets out of your shelter or rescue and into permanent homes.

DON’T include every single detail about an animal’s entire life or try to explain every possible flaw or challenge this pet may have in one post.

Imagine writing a job resume where you list every mistake you’ve ever made, all the projects that didn’t go well, and all the things your coworkers find most annoying about you. You’re probably never going to get the call to come in for that job interview, even if you are a great prospect!

resume pic

While this is an extreme example, it makes an important point. Every person (and dog) has a variety of personality traits and behaviors. We all have a history of highs and lows that makes us who we are. If we put it ALL on the table, before a prospective employer gets to meet us and form a connection with us, we’re not going to get the call to even come in for the interview.

For dogs, they’re probably not going to get the opportunity to meet the person who could change the course of their lives!

Think about it like this: Your resume is a way to land the interview where you have a chance to discuss your strengths and weaknesses. The social media post or bio is the way to get adopters to meet your dogs and have a discussion with you about all of their needs.

DO tell a story! Dalton, pictured here, was a wild child in the shelter. He barked and whined while kenneled and had tons of energy. His behavior in the shelter sent adopters running. Dalton was passed over many times.

In the past, we might have posted that Dalton was a ‘high energy’ dog looking for an ‘active’ family who would take him running and hiking. But we’ve learned potential adopters read through the lines, even when we try to be subtle about potentially negative traits.

Instead we sent Dalton to a foster home for a few days, so we could learn more about him. His foster mom shared a quick story about something he did while at their house.


That story, posted on Facebook, brought in dozens of interested adopters. Marketing him this way allowed us to find a family from this group who was perfect for this young, exuberant pooch. Everyone else that was interested adopted other dogs. Win-win!

For more information on writing descriptions that create connection and draw in adopters, check out Animal Farm Foundation’s E-Book about marketing and advertising.

DON’T focus on restrictions. Restrictions are articulated either as a directive statement, as in “no kids” or as a passive statement such as, “would do best in a home with no kids.” A restriction like this means different things to different people. It leaves a lot of room for people to imagine why you’ve included it in your marketing.

For most adopters, a statement like this will act as a stop sign because they don’t know why you’re using it and it may sound scary. Even for potential adopters who don’t have kids, they may think, “Well, my neighborhood has kids and so I guess this dog won’t work for me,” or alternately, “I don’t have kids, but who wants a dog that doesn’t like kids?” or even, “I wonder if this dog has hurt kids?” By placing restrictions in your marketing, you may have turned off some really great adopters who are the right match.

Even if you are firm about the restriction and will not adopt the dog to a home with kids or cats, you can save that conversation for the in-person adoption counseling process. This is when you will explain the dog’s full history and why you are going to use the restriction. Your adopters will appreciate your transparency and information and trust in your adoption process.

To read more about restrictions, check out Animal Farm Foundation’s E-book about adoption best practices.

Figure 4 Ghost, pictured here, is a deaf dog. We marketed her by talking about how despite her inability to hear, how happy and joyful she always is. Without any special criteria or restrictions, we found her the perfect family.

Ghost, pictured here, is a deaf dog. We marketed her by talking about how despite her inability to hear, how happy and joyful she always is. Without any special criteria or restrictions, we found her the perfect family.

DO stick to positive marketing that inspire adoptions and will create the opportunity for adopters to meet the dog, before beginning the counseling process.

DON’T feel bad if the marketing doesn’t lead to the right match. If someone comes to meet a pet because of your positive marketing and they can’t adopt that particular pet, because of a medical or behavioral issue that you discuss with them, that’s ok…

DO see this as opportunity to make the right match. All of our staff makes an effort to always know some information about six or seven different animals in our shelter. That way, if the pet the adopter saw on social media wasn’t the perfect fit, we have several other potential matches already in mind!

DON’T use industry language, or ‘shelter-speak’ in your marketing efforts. Terms like ‘barrier reactive’ and ‘resource guarding’ might be everyday lingo for you, but to adopters that are both frightening and confusing. Even terms like, ‘jumpy/mouthy’ mean something different to you than what they might mean to a person who is unfamiliar with animal welfare jargon. They may scare off adopters.

DO use everyday language in your marketing, as well as your adoption counseling, that regular people understand. And if you do use a term like ‘zoomies,’ make sure you explain what you mean!

Want to keep it simple? Remember that marketing gets people in the door who are excited to adopt and creates the opportunity for honest, open adoption counseling to happen at the shelter, where the best possible matches can be made.

Commit to a positive-only marketing approach combined with a conversation-based adoption counseling process and you’ll start to send more pets home, right where they belong.


Posted in Adoption and Marketing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Breed Labels: When Guesses Turn Into Predictions

As we travel around the country, having conversations with shelters and rescues about the “pit bull” dogs in their care, we find that there are always a few big a-ha! moments that help people understand that all dogs are individuals just a bit better.

One of the more exciting moments typically happens during our Labels & Language presentation where we discuss the role of breed labeling in shelters and the assumptions we make about dogs based on those labels.

The focus of the talk is to help shelters understand a number of concepts that apply not only to “pit bull” dogs, but to ALL the dogs in their care. This one being of utmost importance:

How a dog is labeled or how they look on the outside, is not an indication of past or future behavior or their suitability for a particular adoption placement.

Too often we make incorrect assumptions about dogs based on label or appearance.

Thanks to ample research, we know that visual breed identification of dogs is highly inaccurate. One study found that the breed labels assigned to shelter dogs by staff members were wrong at least 75% of the time.

Despite this, shelters continue to use breed labels. This is problematic because the highly inaccurate labels we assign to dogs result in people speculating about how dogs will behave or what kind of family they’ll need.

We’re using guesses to make predictions.

labels and perceptions

This approach leads to significant unintended consequences for all dogs, not just “pit bull” dogs.

Just recently we were at a shelter observing a photo shoot for a dog’s adoption profile. One person commented that the dog, a mutt, had black spots on his tongue so he was probably a Chow mix. If the speculation had stopped there, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem – maybe the guess was right or maybe not. We can certainly share our guesses. There’s nothing wrong with that!

But the guess quickly led to a discussion about how this dog might behave based on that label (independent, aloof) and therefore what kind of family he would need (not a good choice for a first time owner).

Rather than pay attention to the dog in front of us at that moment, who was enjoying getting his photo taken, the conversation took off with assumptions and predictions based on a breed description that may or may not apply to this individual dog.

A guess turned into a prediction.

If instead of speculating, we were more present in observing the animal in different situations, like how this dog was relaxed and social during a photo shoot, we’d realize that our assumptions are often way off base.

With nearly 75% of all shelter dogs reported as mixed breed dogs and with a 75% chance that shelter workers will make an incorrect guess at what that breed mix is, it’s clear that we’re making a lot of incorrect assumptions about the dogs in our care.

This is why we advocate for the removal of breed labels in shelters, a trend that’s gaining steam with progressive organizations in 2016.

Maybe you’re still not convinced. It helps to look at the science and research.

Many of you have seen our infographic All Dogs Are Individuals where we put revealed the science of why breed and appearance alone are not accurate indicators of future behavior.

But in our live presentations we often find that one series of photos really drives the point home that our unreliable breed guesses aren’t the basis for accurate predictions of future behavior.

Take a look at the following slides:

In 1965 Scott and Fuller published Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog based on their research.

scott fuller

If these dogs came into your shelter, what breed mix would assume these two dogs are? And what assumptions would you make about how they will behave in the future?

Unlike in real life, where we often don’t know the parents of the mixed breed dogs that arrive in our shelters, we do know the genetic makeup of these two pups:

scott fuller

The two black and white puppies are a cross between a purebred Basenji and a purebred Cocker Spaniel!

Clearly, the puppies do not physically resemble either parent. But it doesn’t stop there…

When the puppies were backcrossed to either of the parental breeds – a purebred Basenji or a purebred Cocker Spaniel – those litters showed even more variability in physical appearance. See for yourself:

scott fuller

These photos are helpful because they make it crystal clear that our breed guesses, based on visual appearance, are highly inaccurate.

We make labeling mistakes all the time and those mistakes have real consequences.

But we don’t have to take Scott and Fuller’s word for it.

More current research, such as the 2015 study titled Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff, continues to serve as a reminder that breed guesses and labels, even those made my experienced shelter staff and veterinarians, are frequently incorrect. The results of the study revealed that “one in five dogs genetically identified with pit bull heritage breeds were missed by all shelter staff at the time of the study. One in three dogs lacking DNA evidence for pit bull heritage breeds were labeled pit bull-type dogs by at least one shelter staff member.”

We’re so often wrong when we make guesses about dog breeds. Yet those labels are powerful.

We allow them to influence our perceptions and predict future behavior or suitability for adoption into certain homes. This can lead to poor matches in regards to energy and temperament for adopters, along with more serious consequences, such as restrictions based on breed.

The bottom line is that labels aren’t reliable and they don’t tell us what we need to know about dogs. Rather than focus on labels and perceived breed, get to know the individual dog in front of you instead!


kennel cards

Use our sign and language to help explain this to your adopters!

More on this topic:

How to drop breed labels at shelters

FAQS about labels (including: how to address breed specific restrictions and insurance issues honestly with adopters and in software systems).

A look at another shelter that dropped labels



Posted in Adoption and Marketing, Programs and Events | Tagged | 3 Comments

3 New Grant Opportunities for 2016

Just a few weeks ago we reopened our Grants Application and that means now is the time for you to apply for funding! If your shelter or organization is working to providing equal opportunities and treatment for the dogs in your care, then you won’t want to miss out on this opportunity to apply for a 2016 grant award.

Not only are we funding marketing initiatives and kennel enrichment programs, as we have in past years, but we’ve also added three new awards this year as well.

Let’s take a look:

If your shelter needs help revamping policies and programs, our Shelter Policy Training Grant might be just what you’re looking for.

AFF will help your shelter save more lives with breed-neutral best practices through presentations, training, and program implementation guidance. We’ll help your staff enact the practical, low or no-cost solutions that work in a variety of sheltering environments (from large, open-intake facilities to limited admission private shelters and even small volunteer-run rescue groups). Learn more here.

If your shelter is ready to rock play groups, but you don’t have the fenced yards to host them in, our Play Yard Construction Grant might be right up your alley!

Animal sheltering organizations currently creating or implementing permanent play group programs for the enrichment and socialization of their shelter dogs may be eligible for up to $10,000 to be used for the repair or construction of play yards. Learn more here.

play yard fencing

If your shelter is ready to take marketing to the next level, our Perfect Exposure Project (PEP) Grant might be just the right fit!

Shelters can apply for the opportunity to work with representatives from HeARTs Speak to improve adoption marketing for all of the animals in their care. Organizations will receive a two day on-site training at their facility, where HeARTs Speak representatives will provide hands-on help in areas such as photography and social media marketing.

This is a limited opportunity and the only grant that has a deadline for applications: organizations must submit applications for the PEP Grant no later than March 31st, 2016. Learn more here.


AFF invests in organizations and programs that support the elimination of discriminatory policies and innovative sheltering practices. If your 501c3 organization is working towards similar goals, with programs and initiatives that treat ALL dogs equally, we encourage you to apply for our grants!

For more information, take a look at our website for detailed grant descriptions, application instructions, and FAQs to help you get started.

Here’s to helping your organization accomplish even more life-saving work in 2016!

Posted in Programs and Events | Tagged | Leave a comment

Looking Back on 2015: Service, Play, and Innovation

From movie stars and public service announcements to service dogs and play yards, Animal Farm Foundation has enjoyed a productive year working to secure equal opportunity and treatment for “pit bull” dogs and their families. As 2015 comes to a close, we wanted to take a look back at the highlights from this year.

We’re very pleased to report that the positive trends we’ve shared with you at the end of 2012, 2013, and 2014 are still in full effect! Towns across the country are continuing to veto and repeal Breed Specific Legislation, states are passing preemptions, shelters are dropping blanket restrictions from their adoption policies, and community advocates are busy connecting under-resourced communities and families with much needed pet services.

This continual positive shift for “pit bull” dogs and their families has allowed us to commit even more resources in 2015 to working with a variety of shelters, individuals, and communities on projects such as:

Assistance Dog Program

In 2015 we trained and placed two new assistance dogs, which brings our program’s total to nine rescued “pit bull” dogs who are now working as service dogs around the country. This year we oversaw the placement of two fabulous new teams: Josh and Koda in New York and Fionna and Tonka in California.

Koda is trained to assist Josh, a veteran, with a number of tasks including retrieving objects, helping Josh transfer into and move his wheelchair, seeking help if Josh falls, and interrupting and helping Josh when he’s experiencing anxiety. They just took their first airplane trip together to visit a friend in the Rocky Mountains and also recorded a song with Mary Gauthier!

Joe and Zen

Joe and Zen

Tonka was recently placed with Fionna, a medical fitness trainer who has Multiple Sclerosis. Tonka is trained to help counter balance Fionna when she’s walking, doing stairs, and standing, and applies pressure to help her when she’s experiencing tremors.

We also saw increased coverage of our program, such as People’s interview with Matthew and his assistance dog Jericho and this terrific piece from NBC News about Joe and his assistance dog Zen.  Zen attends school with Joe, a former Marine, helping him to feel calm and comfortable in social settings. Joe says that Zen “always watches his 6” when in public. They, like the rest of the teams, are perfect partners!

AFF has five dogs who are currently in training and we look forward to seeing the good work they do in 2016!

Detection Dog Program

This year Animal Farm Foundation formed a collaboration with Austin Pets Alive! and Universal K9 so that rescued and sheltered “pit bull” dogs can be considered for Detection Dog work. Potential detection dog candidates are selected from the Austin Pets Alive! shelter system to participate in training led by Universal K9, located in San Antonio, Texas.

Once there, Brad Croft founder of Universal K9, trains and places the dogs in police departments around the country at no charge. Animal Farm Foundation provides a sponsorship to Universal K9 to help cover the costs of the officer training.

K9 Loll and the Chief of Barlette Texas PD

K9 Loll and the Chief of Barlette Texas PD

In 2015 a total of eight “pit bull” dogs were trained and placed in police departments around the country, from Georgia and Texas to right here in our own backyard of Poughkeepsie, New York.

There has been a ton of positive buzz about the dogs and many of the K9s have their own Facebook pages with growing fan clubs! Along with the others, K9 Kiah has received wonderful media coverage, helping to further dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding “pit bull” dogs.

The Majority Project

In 2015 we relaunched The Majority Project (TMP) with a new website, Facebook page, and a series of Public Service Announcements starring actor Jon Bernthal. The PSAs were aired around the country on radio and television and by mid-November our message had been broadcasted almost 7,000 times with nearly 500,000,000 impressions!

Along with the great news coverage about Jon’s involvement with TMP, this adds up to a very big spotlight on our project. Millions of people got the message in 2015 that the families who live with “pit bull” dogs are everyday people living with everyday dogs.

The thousands of new photos we received in 2015 illustrate the many ways that “pit bull” dog families from around the world are making valuable contributions to their communities and families.

photo credit: Humane Society for Hamilton County (Indiana) and Smiling Dog Photography

“I am a NICU Nurse and mom.” photo credit: Humane Society for Hamilton County (Indiana) and Smiling Dog Photography

The PSA is empowering dog owners to stand up against discrimination and breaks down the myth that only criminals and reckless people want “pit bull” dogs (a harmful stereotype that leads to restricted adoption policies, breed specific legislation, and other discriminatory policies). With millions of people meeting The Majority through our PSA we know that this misconception is finally on its way out.

And we’re always accepting submissions on our website, so print out a sign and join us!

Dogs Playing For Life

Dogs Playing for Life! manual

Dogs Playing for Life manual

DPFL kicked off the year with the release of their play group manual which was created with the support of a grant from AFF. The unique manual, which provides shelters with detailed instructions for running play groups, can be downloaded for free from the DPFL website.

To support this life-saving program, AFF awarded more than $30,000 for play yard construction in 2015. Allegany County Animal Shelter in Cumberland, MD, Animal Foundation in Las Vegas, NV, Humane Society of Adams County in West Union, OH, and Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control in West Palm Beach, FL were the main recipients of this year’s play yard grants.

Since 2012, AFF has invested nearly $200,000 for the construction of play yards at 18 shelters across the nation. We believe that play groups change perceptions, save lives, and are a critical component of progressive and humane animal sheltering. We’re proud to fund the construction of spaces that allow these programs to flourish and to support the DPFL team as they travel coast to coast to train shelters in implementing this game-changing program.

Grants and Awards

In 2015 AFF awarded approximately $425,000 in grants to shelters, rescues, and organizations who are committed to providing equal treatment and opportunities for all dogs. We’re thrilled to support innovative work, like the Pets for Life program, as well as the work of many others, such as:

Dogs Out Loud: based in Austin, TX, DOL works to provide training and behavior support services to address the needs of medium and large breed dogs in their local shelters. With help from our grant program, DOL created an innovative new enrichment and training program at Austin Animal Center called The Thinking Walk. Designed to make training and enrichment easy and accessible to all dogs, volunteers, and staff, the walking stations are set up along the front courtyard loop at AAC, a frequently traveled path for canine bathroom breaks and walks.

HeARTs Speak: a global network of photographers, artists, writers, designers, and advocates who work to save homeless animals, HeARTS Speak was awarded a grant from AFF to print one-of-a-kind field guides designed to help shelters boost adoptions. The Shelter Photography Field Guide is now available for purchase with 100% of the proceeds going towards funding HeARTS Speak’s Perfect Exposure Project which provides hands-on photography and marketing training for shelters. Full of inspiration, tips, and tricks for positively promoting pets in shelters, it’s the new must-have shelter resource.


Pit Sisters: based in Jacksonville, FL, Pit Sisters got creative with their pet owner support services and created a Mobile Training Program. By offering free dog training in targeted areas, the program helps to keep pets in their homes and out of shelters. We awarded multiple grants to Pit Sisters for their collaborative, compassionate, and effective work for pets and people in their community, which was extended at the end of the year when they took over the TAILS Program (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills). Now Pit Sisters helps shelter dogs and inmates learn the skills they need to succeed!

Our grant application process begins January 1st, so now is a good time to take a look at our website and familiarize yourself with our grant programs. We look forward to supporting more of you in 2016!

Dutchess County SPCA

Our yearlong collaboration with our local shelter, the Dutchess County SPCA, has focused on helping them move into their new facilities and revamp their adoption program. To support these efforts our shelter staff transferred over to working directly at the DCSPCA on a daily basis as adoption counselors (for both dogs and cats) and provided support with marketing and outreach. Today, our community collaboration continues, but the time has come for our staff to return home to the Farm!

Are you ready to meet your BFF at AFF? Check out just a few of the amazing new dogs here on the Farm!

Are you ready to meet your BFF at AFF? Check out just a few of the amazing new dogs here on the Farm!

We are once again accepting dogs into our own adoption program and currently have a group of wonderful pups – “pit bull” dogs, small dogs and many others – that have recently arrived. We’re looking forward to seeing them and the DCSPCA dogs go home with adopters for the holidays!

We hope that, despite any challenges and setbacks we may all still be facing, the successes and progress made in 2015 will provide inspiration as we continue to move forward in our combined work to create a better world for “pit bull” dogs and the people that love them. We’re excited about the coming year because we know that, with your help, things are going to continue to improve for all pets and their families.

Happy New Year everyone and welcome 2016!

Posted in Adoption and Marketing, Breed Specific Legislation, Programs and Events | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Praise of Normal

Normal. In a world where we’re all jockeying to stand out from the crowd, being normal gets a bad rap. We confuse normal with ordinary and boring.
Those of us that love, live with, and advocate for “pit bull” dogs naturally see our dogs as anything but ordinary. In our minds, “pit bull” dogs are uniquely adorable, lovable, and loyal. They’re extraordinary and the world needs to know it!
HSHC-Majority - 10 small

Indiana Family. Photo credit: Humane Society for Hamilton County (Indiana) and Smiling Dog Photography

But here’s a secret: we don’t need anyone to view our dogs as special or different. In fact, seeing our dogs as different has led to all kinds of problems, like breed specific legislation.
Helping the public and policymakers understand that “pit bull” dogs are ordinary, normal dogs has always been the goal.
“Pit bull” dogs aren’t different or better than other dogs. They’re just dogs.
Equal. Average. Normal.
And when you think about it, being normal is a huge compliment!
Because that’s the wonderful thing about dogs. Just being a normal dog is pretty awesome.
Dogs are our best friends. They’re good for our physical health. They reduce our isolation and connect us with others. Some dogs don’t do much at all except sunbathe and drool.  But even that makes our houses a little homier and our lives much richer.
New York Family

New York Family

As advocates, the best gift we can give “pit bull” dogs is to view them and communicate about them as being normal dogs. That’s why we’re no longer granting to “pit bull” dog specific programs. We’ve shifted our grant funding to programs that are inclusive, but not exclusive, to “pit bull” dogs. That means we won’t fund programs that single “pit bull” dogs out by excluding them or focusing solely on them. We insist they get fair treatment, which includes being treated equally:
Not better or different than other kinds of dogs.
Of course there are some pretty spectacular individual dogs out there doing things beyond the norm. For example, some dogs keep our communities safe. And others are our eyes, ears, and legs, helping us to navigate the world.  
Individual dogs are all different. They fall all over the spectrum from heroes and helpers to dogs that are in trouble and in need of our help. But most dogs are hanging out in between the extremes. Just doing normal dogs stuff.
We created an entire campaign called The Majority Project that shows off how living with a “pit bull” dog is totally normal! Thousands and thousands of you shared a slice of your everyday lives with your dogs: watching TV, hanging out in the yard, cuddling with your kids, dressed up at the holidays, and all the other little ways “pit bull” dogs are a part of our normal lives. Nothing news-worthy, but the opportunity to be ordinary is really quite wonderful.
Nichelle and Boss Wayne from Mosley, NC.

North Carolina Family

Of course each one of us has a special dog that is, no question about it, the best dog that ever lived. But overall, there’s nothing unique about “pit bull” dogs.
The only thing that, for now, still separates “pit bull” dogs from all the other dogs is…people. People and the problems we create for them by insisting that they are different and need special regulations and treatment. That’s what continues to be unique to “pit bull” dogs.
But the “pit bull” dogs themselves? They’re just ordinary dogs. And they’re patiently waiting for us humans to catch up and recognize this.
“Pit bull” dogs deserve to be  cared for and celebrated, not because they are different or special or better than others dogs, but simply because they’re dogs.
And normal, ordinary dogs RULE!  
Posted in Fair and Equal Treatment | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Myth Busted: Pit Bulls Don’t Bite Differently

In recent years, things have been looking up for the dogs we call “pit bulls” and their families. Breed specific legislation is on the way out. Shelters that discriminate against dogs based on appearance are the exception. The old wives tales that fueled canine discrimination have been debunked and dismissed.

Except for one: Some people are still perpetuating the myth that “pit bull” dogs bite differently than other dogs. Unfounded claims persist about the severity and nature of incidents involving “pit bull” dogs versus other types of dogs. Claims about the “unique damage that ‘pit bull’ dogs inflict” are made by individuals or special interest groups with no experience in analyzing dog bite-related injuries or knowledge of dog physiology or behavior.

Let’s bust this myth once and for all.

First, it must be understood that “pit bull” is not a breed. Attempts at legal definitions of what a “pit bull” is are outrageously inconsistent and no breed club or genetic definitions exist at all. Visual identification of dogs of unknown origin is also highly unreliable. Quite frankly, you don’t know a “pit bull” dog when you see one. It’s a highly subjective label with no agreed upon definition.

But even if you think you’re the exception (hint: you’re not) and know a “pit bull” dog when you see one, know this: research shows that breed is a very weak predictor of behavior in modern purebred dogs.  Modern dogs are bred almost exclusively for appearance. If you think that two dogs who look identical will behave the same (including how and when they bite), you’ve shown a profound lack of sophistication in understanding dog breeding and genetics. Even cloned dogs – all the same DNA – don’t behave identically.

Yet some still insist we can predict how hard a dog will bite or what sort of damage he will do based on his physical appearance.

The result is false statements like: They don’t bite more often, but if a pit bull does bite, he’s far more likely to inflict serious injuries than most other breeds. Or, since their jaws are different than other dogs, they cause more damage when they do bite. And, they don’t inhibit their bites, so they may cause injury more often than other dogs. Or this tired myth, pound for pound pit bulls have the strongest jaws of any animal.

These statement are FALSE. They’re all baseless. No such claim has ever been demonstrated anywhere in the scientific literature!

And yet they are often repeated by medical authors and legislators who have no knowledge of dog behavior or even of the origin of these myths.  Most of these ideas, in fact, can be traced back to the claims made to a reporter for the LA Times in 1980, by an individual identified only as “the dog fighter.”[i]   One story has spawned decades of myths. Thanks a lot, Internet.

While it is widely observed among dog professionals that individual dogs vary in bite and fight “styles” (that is, when the dogs are upset enough to bite), there has been no academic study of this and certainly not with regard to breed differences. Even general conflict and self-defense behavior can’t be shown to vary according to breed, so it’s implausible in the extreme that a very specific subset of behavior, like duration of sustaining a bite, would have breed correlations.

Nor is there any credible data on bite injury severity by breed. Some reports by physicians make the claim that “pit bull” dogs are over-represented among severe injury cases, but all rely on visual breed identifications which research proves is unreliable. This is unsurprising, as the most comprehensive study to date of dog bite related fatalities has demonstrated that even in these intensely investigated cases, it is impossible to reliably identify the breed(s) of dog(s) involved in the vast majority of cases. [ii] Newspaper reporters, doctors, legislators, even so-called dog professionals continue to perpetuate these myths based on hearsay, hype, and unreliable information.

There are no facts to back up the oft-repeated claim that “pit bull” dogs bite differently or cause more damage than other dogs.

Wildly varying claims are also made regarding the potential closing pressure of dogs’ jaws. The results of the handful of studies that have looked at this are ambiguous at best.

What is clear is that no scientist has ever found anything even remotely close to the ridiculous claim that “pit bull” jaws have the capacity to bite with 2700 psi. Never.

The research that does exist is an offshoot of studies of other species, mainly attempts to determine how much force an animal may be able to apply in eating his food.  Across species, the general finding is that the pressure available matches what’s needed for the particular food available. Along these lines, a few scientists have attempted to measure potential jaw force in dogs.  Neither of the two study groups that specify breeds include any dogs identified as “pit bulls.”

[iv] Ellis JL, (2009). Cranial dimensions and forces of biting in the domestic dog. Journal of Anatomy 214. 362-373.

[iv] Ellis JL, (2009). Cranial dimensions and forces of biting in the domestic dog. Journal of Anatomy 214. 362-373.

So any bite force claim regarding “pit bull” dogs is simply made up, or perhaps the product of some unscientific backyard “experiment” reminiscent of the shadowy figure of “the dog fighter,” to whom so much of this mythology can be attributed.

The actual findings that do exist among dogs in general can range from 13 to 1394 Newtons.  “Newtons,” a way to quantify force, is the unit of measure consistently used in such studies, not pounds per square inch, a measure of pressure which no studies use.

Stick with us here: Four different methods of studying jaw force have been tried.  One method has been to perform a geometric analysis of potential leverage based on the top and bottom jaw structures.[iii],[iv]  A second method has been to electrically stimulate the jaw muscles of anesthetized dogs to close, focusing on various muscle groups.[v] This yields the highest numbers, presumably because unconsciousness renders a dog less concerned about breaking his teeth or even his actual jaw bones.  These two methods attempt to measure how much pressure a dog would have at his disposal should he choose to use maximum force, which no one in behavior, by the way, thinks dogs normally do in conflict situations.  A third method involves hooking up electrodes to the jaw muscles of a dog chewing a bone.[vi]  And finally, a device called a transducer has been contrived to sense the force exerted on a chew object offered to a dog.[vii]

Some of these have been applied to compare potential jaw pressure of varying sizes and skull shapes. These four different methods yield different results. The anesthetized dog method, for example, has found that bite force increases if not proportionately, at least significantly, with the size of the dog and with shorter jaws and wider skulls in medium and large dogs. Other studies don’t find this.

Among the few studies that specify breeds of the subjects, one tested two Rottweilers of similar size: one dog bit down on the rawhide covered “transducer” with more than three times the force of the other.[viii]  There has even been a rather silly attempt to loosely apply this study technique for the entertainment of television audiences, by putting a pressure sensing device into a heavy Kevlar sleeve which the handler then entices three dogs of different breeds to grab onto and shake as if his arm were a tug toy, without any way of knowing what part of the object was being borne down on, which teeth were being brought to bear (real studies always distinguish between pressure from molars and canines) or even the effect of the varying weights of the dogs on how much pressure they would need to hang on. In this case, it was solemnly concluded that the “pit bull’s” jaw pressure was less than that of the German Shepherd Dog or the Rottweiler, but this finding renders the “experiment” no less foolish.

But not one single study backs up the bite force claims about dogs that are constantly cited in media, ordinances, and sloppy scholarship in studies of dog bite injuries. NOT ONE.

All dogs, of any breed, mix, or size, with teeth have the ability to significantly harm us if they choose to do so. They very seldom do. Conflicts between dogs and people are highly ritualized, at least from the dog’s side.  In other words, dogs typically “pull their punches,” even when trying to influence our behavior by using their teeth.  The technical term for this is acquired bite inhibition (ABI). No one believes that this learned behavior is in any way breed specific.

Finally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) exhaustive review of dog bite studies conducted in North America and elsewhere has concluded that, “Serious bites occur due to a range of factors,” and that separate regulation based on breed is not a basis for preventing such dog bites.

To put it simply:

No dog is biologically equipped with a unique jaw structure, locking mechanism, biting mechanism or “style” that would differentiate them from other breeds of dogs.

No scientific research exists to substantiate the myth that “pit bull” dogs bite differently or more severely.

It’s time to put an end to this last myth.


Resources regarding effective approaches to reducing dog bite-related incidents can be found here.


[i] “Dogfighting: Illegal but Proliferating ,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1980

[ii] Patronek, 2013. Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243 (12), 1726-1736.

[iii] Ellis, JL, (2008). Calibration of estimated biting forces in domestic canids: comparison of post-mortem and in vivo measurements. Journal of Anatomy 212. 769-780

[iv] Ellis JL, (2009). Cranial dimensions and forces of biting in the domestic dog. Journal of Anatomy 214. 362-373.

[v] Ellis, 2008.

[vi] Dessem, D., (1988) Interactions between jaw-muscle recruitment and jaw-joint forces in Canis familiaris. Journal of Anatomy 164, 101-121

[vii] Lindner, DL, (1995). Measurement of bite force: A pilot study. Journal of Veterinary Dentistry 12. 49-52.

[viii] Lindner

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